The friction of changing floors
How long does it take to get to the top of the Empire State Building? If you take the stairs, be warned that there are 1,860 of them, so you’ll have to be in great shape to even attempt the climb. The winner of the building’s annual competitive “run up” typically takes about 10 minutes to reach the top, so presumably most of us would need at least half an hour.
Fortunately there are 73 elevators in the building, traveling at up to 22km/h. Even so, there are waits during busy times, one has to change elevators to reach the top, and of course one has to walk to and from the elevator, so the trip is not without delays.
Thanks to the children’s book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, millions of us have wondered what it would be like to step into an elevator, press a button, and be delivered instantly not just to a particular floor, but to a specific room. Now, it seems possible that children might one day wonder why elevators were ever limited to moving in one dimension.
That’s because German engineering firm ThyssenKrupp hopes to revolutionize the modern elevator with a groundbreaking new design. Traditional elevator cabins are pulled up and down by cables, and require substantial allocations of space. The cabin of ThyssenKrupp’s MULTI lift moves on tracks that are installed both vertically and horizontally throughout the building, and it’s propelled by frictionless maglev (magnetic levitation) technology, similar to that in use on high speed trains.
The immediate effect of the new design is to reduce wait times, bypass other elevators, and move people more efficiently, with up to 50% higher transport capacity and 60% lower peak power demand. Ultimately the lift system could change how buildings are designed, by making the form of a building less dependent on the limitations of lifts. Current elevator shafts take up to 40% of a tall building’s floor space, and traditional cable elevators have structural limits on their height, requiring several lift shafts to get to the top of a very tall building.
As with any new technology, the cost is likely to be prohibitive for some time, as much as 5 times the cost of a traditional lift system. However, one German developer has already committed to installing the system in the new East Side Tower in Berlin.
Businesses, like elevators, are made up of moving parts, whether those parts are the machinery used in manufacturing, products in transit to markets, or invoices sent from Suppliers to Buyers. Increasingly many of these elements, especially those on paper, can be virtualized and sent, stored and retrieved via digital means. One question for the future is the degree to which other physical elements of business can be dematerialized in like fashion.
For instance, one would imagine that the laws of physics make it impossible to digitize a piece of furniture, transmit it digitally to a store or a home, and then rematerialize it on the spot. Then again, new digital printers already make it possible to print 3D objects, and so future advancements may someday make that, or something like it, a reality as well.
People pose a different problem. The digital transformation of the workplace now allows us to work when we’re away from the office, whether that’s at home or at the airport. We can log into conferences remotely, send emails containing electronic documents or image, text each other and even assemble in virtual online work environments. But such innovations haven’t so far eliminated the need for offices altogether. So long as there’s value in physically assembling as a group to take on the challenges posed by our businesses, we’ll need to find more efficient ways of bringing people together to work, whether the work involves making chocolate bars or processing invoices. At the moment, an elevator that gets you closer to where you’re going at the push of a button seems like a step in the right direction.